What are the custody patterns in Washington State?

07/20/2011 07:08 pm ET | Updated Sep 19, 2011
  • Robert Hughes, Jr. Professor of Human Development, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

News reports often highlight the sensational and irrational behaviors of divorcing parents leading to a distorted understanding of the typical patterns of divorce resolution in the U.S. Data from actual court proceedings often tell a different story. In Washington State, the Court Research unit keeps track of how divorcing parents manage custody arrangements.

In the 2010 report, there are some interesting findings about parenting plans. First, in general, children are more likely to be in a custody arrangement in which they spend more time with their mothers than their fathers, but about 18% of all the cases are a 50/50 split.

The Washington State Court also asks about risk factors such as domestic violence, child abuse, and chemical dependence and examines how these factors affect residential time. Overall, about 88% of the families have none of these risk factors. (That's interesting by itself!) About 4% of the mothers and 10% of the fathers are identified as having a risk factor. As would be expected, as the number of risk factors increase, the parent without the risks is more likely to have full custody. When a mother has 3+ risk factors 65% of the fathers are likely to have full custody and when fathers have high risk factors (3+), about 75% of the mothers have full custody. In general, fathers were more likely to lose residential time with their children due to risk factors than mothers.

So how were these parenting arrangements decided? Almost 9 out of 10 cases (88%) were decided by the parents themselves. Only 2% were decided by the courts through a trial and another 10% were decided by default. In those cases, decided by the parents themselves, 22% of the parents chose equal time. In the contested and default cases, only 5% of the cases resulted in equal time for both parents.

There were also differences in the cases that involved legal representatives. In general, about 60% of the cases, both parents represented themselves. In those cases in which fathers had attorneys but not the mothers, 38% of the fathers got the more parenting time and 38% of the mothers got more parenting time. When both parties had attorneys, fathers were more likely to get some parenting time (about 40%) compared to cases in which both parties represented themselves (only 25% of fathers in these cases got "some' parenting time). It should be noted that these differences cannot necessarily be attributed to the use of an attorney since cases involving attorneys may be quite different than those in which both parties represent themselves.

Finally, the Court asked parents about their preferences for dispute resolution. About half (49%) of the parents would favor mediation as a path to resolution and 38% would favor the courts. However, those cases in which one of the parents had a risk factor, the courts were strongly favored over mediation (about two-thirds).

This provides an interesting portrait of the actual patterns of custody and parenting plans among divorcing parents in Washington State. Over time it will be possible to examine changes in these patterns and to examine whether policy and social circumstances change these patterns. An important finding in these data is that for the most part, most divorcing parents are not identified as potential risks to their children and many couples are making their own decisions about these matters.